Philip Seymour Hoffman and the Victims and Villains of the Drug Trade

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has, as many celebrity stories do, run its course in the news. The flurry of grief and opinions and ruminations on the topic has mostly passed, but recently two brief pieces on Hoffman showed up in The Daily News and The New York Post, the twin newspapers of record for sordid New York City tales. The first story was that Hoffman's West Village apartment was rented, just a day after being put on the market, for the not-untidy sum of $10,500 per month. The second story was that Robert Vineberg, the man alleged to have provided Hoffman with his last deadly hit, was denied an opportunity to have his case handled in Drug Court. The obscenely priced apartment and the drug dealer who won't get a break - two sides of the same Manhattan story.

The state of Manhattan real estate aside, focusing on Vineberg's story can illuminate some areas of the criminal justice system that often get ignored when we talk about the effects of heroin and other drugs. We often think of the user as the victim and the dealer as the villain. And the criminal justice system, then, is the vehicle by which we seek justice for the victim and punishment for the villain. Sometimes that's true in drug cases; mostly it's not.

In drug cases, the victim and villain often share some common traits - perhaps poverty or addiction or a lack of opportunities. For all the ritziness of Manhattan, what happens in the hallowed halls of 100 Centre Street, the art-deco courthouse that sits on the tip of the island, is not an episode of Miami Vice. There are no Afghani poppy distributors or Mexican drug syndicates. That's not what one sees on a typical day in Judge McLaughlin's courtroom, where Vineberg's case is being handled. Instead, the people who come through his doors are addicts and young people and occasionally a dealer making enough money to buy really nice clothes, but not much else. Most dealers are represented by public defenders, which means that they haven't earned a fortune off the drug trade. Or even a pittance.

Here's what we know about Vineberg. He is 57 years old. Originally from Canada, he is a talented, but only sometimes-employed jazz saxophonist, who has played with some big hitters, including another ill-fated celebrity, Amy Winehouse. He lives on Mott Street in Chinatown. It was there that the cops found him and approximately 300 baggies of heroin. (Interestingly, the baggies were not of the same "brand" of heroin that Hoffman was found with, leading many, including Vineberg's lawyer, to note that Vineberg likely did not provide Hoffman with the drugs that killed him). He has no criminal record. According to a motion filed by his lawyer, "in recent years, Mr. Vineberg has increased his heroin intake to some 10 bags per day. As a result, his musical career has foundered. He has fallen into significant depression and he has neglected his work and family obligations."

Here's what we know about his criminal case. His top charge is felony possession with the intent to sell, a B felony. He faces a sentence of anywhere from probation to nine years in jail. If convicted he will also face a host of collateral consequences, including authorized forms of housing and employment discrimination. That doesn't matter much, though, since he is Canadian and, even if he has a green card, will be deported if he pleads guilty or is convicted at trial. His only chance of avoiding this fate is to get into Drug Court, a specialized court meant to divert defendants into treatment after drug-related arrests. If a defendant successfully completes Drug Court, the conviction gets wiped off his record. But that door closed when Vineberg's motion to even be considered by Drug Court was denied.

Lest anyone think that Drug Court is a walk in the park, most defendants usually face a tougher sentence than the one offered at the plea phase if they fail to complete the grueling 12-16 month in-patient drug treatment process. A variety of violations will get a defendant kicked out of treatment and back to court. Putting aside the difficulties of completing the treatment phase of Drug Court, the bigger issue, as Vineberg's case demonstrates, is how difficult it is even to get in in the first place. When I was a public defender practicing in Manhattan, I had defendants rejected from Drug Court for any number of reasons - their drug problems were too bad; their drug problems weren't bad enough; they had committed violent offenses twenty, or even thirty years earlier. I had a prosecutor fight tooth and nail against drug treatment for a client who had been charged with selling drugs to an undercover officer because the client had one violent offense on his record - an assault from the year before my birth. Not surprisingly, an assault that occurred while he was high. My client miraculously made it into treatment and continues to fight - also tooth and nail - for his sobriety.

The line between victim and villain is confusing in drug cases. And yet, we rightly mourn the loss of Hoffman, while subjecting his suspected dealer to a system of justice that doesn't help anyone. When Vineberg, already down on his luck and nearing age 60, finishes with this case - whatever the outcome - he will be less capable of contributing to his family and society than he was before. And people will still be dying of heroin overdoses.

And the question then is - why? Why do we do this? I asked myself that question during one of my last arraignment shifts as a public defender. I represented a young man charged, with a co-defendant, for selling a single baggie of heroin to an undercover. My client, a 19-year-old, slightly overweight kid with shaggy hair and no criminal record, was shaking with nervousness as we went before the judge. His co-defendant was so addled by drug addiction that he could barely keep himself upright at the podium. He stood before the judge, drooping forward, his eyes closing and then blinking open suddenly. Both men were indicted on felonies and neither received any kind of treatment or programing. An aging jazz musician, a young kid, an addict in withdrawal - these are the villains of drug cases.

Here is the reality. People do drugs, even though they are terrible and destroy the user's life and the lives of those who love him. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the greatest example of this phenomenon. He was an ultra-talented actor with money and a family and a lauded career that could have lasted another three decades. He had been through rehab before, so he knew that it was available and that there was no shame to going. He certainly could have afforded to get help. But he didn't.

Assuming you believe that Hoffman got his final hit from Vineberg -- who can believe that if Vineberg wasn't around, Hoffman wouldn't have found drugs elsewhere? What is the point of locking him up, deporting him, and saddling him with a criminal record? Does it stop the drug trade? Does it prevent future deaths? Or does it only make us feel better because someone so spectacular is no longer here? It's a question we have to stop ignoring if we care about addiction and its toll.